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We Belong to Christ

Sunday January 26th 2020

Pastor Galen Zook

1 Cor. 1:10-18

Ravens Fan Club

I do a little bit of traveling to other parts of the U.S. with my college campus ministry job, and frequently when someone finds out that I am from Baltimore, they will say, “oh, so I guess you are a Ravens fan, right?”

For anyone wondering, of course I always answer in the affirmative! Yes I am a Ravens fan.

The truth of the matter is that I really don’t watch a lot of football. It’s difficult for me to sit still for long periods of time, and I just don’t have the patience to sit in front of a TV for three hours to watch an entire football game. I’d much rather watch a live sports game, or get outside and do something active. But I do indeed root for the Ravens, and I am very sad that we’re not going to the Superbowl this year. 

I remember the last time the Ravens were in the Superbowl. It was so fun to be in Baltimore! It felt like the whole city was decked out in purple. One thing I learned during that time is that wearing a Ravens jersey on a Sunday morning counts as dressing up for church!

One of the reasons that people ask which football team you root for is that they want to know where your loyalties lie. Are you a team player who roots for your home team? Or are you someone who refuses to “jump on the bandwagon” and wants to be different from everyone else? If you live in Baltimore but don’t root for the Ravens, perhaps you moved here from another city, and still root for your hometown team.  

Some people place a lot of pride in the football, or baseball, or hockey team that they root for. It becomes a part of their identity, who they are, and no matter where they live or how much other people pressure them, they refuse to switch teams. 

Cult of Personality

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having a favorite sports team that you root for, and there’s nothing wrong with loving and supporting that team until the day you die. 

The problem is that some people bring that same mindset into the church! They view religious leaders sort of like their favorite football teams. They swear their allegiance and loyalty their favorite preacher, or author, or podcaster, or religious guru. They rush out to buy that person’s latest book, they’re always quoting or retweeting the latest things that person said, and they take everything that person says at face value. Part of their identity becomes wrapped up in following that particular leader. 

Today there are whole churches, organizations and religious institutions that have been built around charismatic and dynamic leaders. People devote their whole lives to that particular leader, and seem to do whatever that leader says. This is what we might call a “cult of personality.” 

This is essentially the situation that was happening in the church at Corinth when Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians. The Corinthian church had been divided up into factions, with some claiming that they followed Paul, who had started their church some years prior. Others claimed to follow Apollos, who is described in the book of Acts as “an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures” (Acts 18:24b) and seems to have pastored the Corinthian church for some time (see 1 Cor. 3:6). Others claimed to follow Cephas (the Apostle Peter), and still others claimed to follow Jesus.

The problem with all of this, of course, is that as followers of Christ we are to give allegiance and loyalty solely to Jesus Christ! Not to the pastor who baptized us, or the denominational leader we most admire, or the Christian author or podcaster that speaks to us the most. We are to place our faith and trust in Christ alone. Pastors, religious leaders, and teachers should point us toward Christ. And although there’s nothing wrong with having a favorite author or speaker or leader, they should not be the objects of our devotion. That role is reserved only for Jesus Christ.

We Belong to Christ

Now there were some in Paul’s day who proudly proclaimed “I belong to Christ.” But rather than commending them, Paul reprimands them along with everyone else! Why was that, you might ask?

Because of the singular pronoun that they were using: “I”. “I belong to Christ,” as if the other members of their congregation didn’t! As if they were better than all of their other brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul was not willing to stand for any sense of division in the church — even from those who claimed to follow Christ — if in doing so they were attempting to put down their fellow believers.

The only proper way of thinking about all of this is to use the plural personal pronoun “we.” We belong to Christ. And for this, Paul appeals to the Corinthian church and to us today, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that we be in agreement and that there be no divisions among us, but that we be “united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1 Cor. 10b).

“Same mind and same purpose.” For those of you who might pride yourself in being an independent thinker, in not jumping on the bandwagon and rooting for the same team as everyone else, that might rub you the wrong way. Perhaps you like to stand apart from the crowd, to march to the beat of your own drum. 

But Paul wasn’t asking the Corinthians to all dress alike or think alike, or even to act just like everyone else around them. But he is asking them to put their divisions aside, to have the same mindset, to remember the reason why they were there, to be united in one mission and one purpose, and to remember that their allegiance is to Jesus Christ, above all else. It’s only through Jesus that the Corinthians could be saved, and the same is true for us as well.

One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism

After all, as Paul points out, neither Paul, nor Apollos nor any of the other religious leaders that people follow today have not been crucified for us. Christ is the only one who died on the cross for the sins of the world. Paul reminds the Corinthians that they were not baptized in the name of Paul or Apollos or Cephas. They were baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, just as we are today.

As Paul says in the book of Ephesians, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6).

One body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all. This is the mindset that Paul wanted the Corinthians to have, and this is the mindset we are called to have today as well. 

We — not I, not you, but we — belong to Christ. We ultimately belong not to the individual church or denomination we’re a part of — even though we do have membership in our local church or denomination. We belong not to the pastor or religious leader that we love to listen to. We belong not to a favorite sports team or political party. Not to an employer or a company or a bank or educational institution. We Belong to Christ.

The “Foolishness” of the Cross

As Paul acknowledges, all of this sounds rather foolish to outsiders. To those who have never experienced Christ’s saving grace, it seems crazy to worship someone who was put to death on a cross.

After all, crosses were instruments of torture and death reserved only for the lowliest of criminals. Slaves who committed crimes, rebels, and traitors were hung on crosses. Roman citizens who committed even the most heinous of crimes were not hung on crosses to die. The Romans used crosses to publicly shame and humiliate anyone who dared try to revolt against the Roman Empire. It was Rome’s way of demonstrating the power of the empire and the weakness of those who tried to revolt. 

But for Paul and for us, the cross represents the power of God. Because in submitting to death on the cross and in rising from the grave three days later, Jesus conquered sin and death and hell and the grave. Jesus went to the cross willingly, not out of weakness, but rather because of the strength of his love and commitment to us. Jesus willingly laid down his life for us and willingly endured the shame and public humiliation of death on the cross on our behalf, so that we could be made right with God, so that we could be born anew. Jesus did that for us. 

And because Jesus willingly gave his life for us by dying on the cross, we can have peace with God and with others. 

Cross-Shaped Love

You see, although the cross may seem like foolishness to the world, for those of us who have experienced Christ’s love, grace, and mercy, even the shape of the cross has special significance. The cross has both a vertical and a horizontal element. 

The vertical beam of the cross points us upward to God, and we are reminded that in Christ, God came down to us, to reconcile us to God. The cross demonstrates God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness flowing down towards us, and because of Jesus’s death on the cross we can be made right with God. 

The horizontal beam of the cross reminds us that the cross also reconciles us to one another. When Jesus stretched out his hands and allowed himself to be nailed to the cross, his arms were stretched out in love to welcome anyone and everyone who acknowledges Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Through the cross we are united not only to God, but to every other person on the face of this earth who claims the name of Christ, every person who looks to Jesus as the source of their hope and strength. We are united not just with each other here in our congregation, but with every believer around the world, in every church and congregation, throughout time and history. Those who lived before us, and those who will come after us. 

This is the power of the cross. This is the power that raised Jesus from the grave! This is the power of the Gospel! And this is what it means when we say that We Belong to Christ.

You Are Not Lacking

Sunday January 19th 2020

Pastor Galen Zook

Isaiah 49:5-7; 1 Cor. 1:1-9

Performance Evaluations

Imagine with me that you are about to receive a performance evaluation at work.

Or for those of you in school, that you have been called to the principal’s office, or told to stay after class to meet with your professor. How would you feel?

Many of us probably dread such occasions. It’s scary to get feedback on how we’re doing, especially when we have no idea what our employer or instructor is going to say.

Now, there are good ways and there are bad ways to do performance evaluations. The ideal scenario is that negative feedback does not come as a surprise, and that a performance evaluation is a summation of things that have already been communicated by the employer or instructor on some prior occasion.

The worst performance review that I’ve ever heard of happened to a friend of mine who was the principal of a school. The chairperson of the school board did not notify my friend that she was going to be getting a performance review, and simply sent the review to her in the mail — completely out of the blue. When my friend opened the letter containing her performance review, she discovered that the evaluation consisted of a collection of feedback — positive and negative, but mostly negative —  from various members of the school board, teachers, and parents of the school. The feedback was given in no particular order with no context as to why it was being given. It contained no personalized note from the sender. It was sort of like getting Yelp reviews, or comments on a YouTube video, sent to you in the mail from your boss! Not a very fun experience, and probably not the most helpful way to give feedback.

Good supervisors or teachers, on the other hand, generally begin by stating the positives, building trust with the employee or pupil by stating some of the wonderful things that they have done, before moving on to present opportunities for growth in ways that are affirming, but also clear, so that the person being given the feedback can improve their performance. Good bosses and teachers want those in their charge to improve, and so giving critical feedback is important and significant. But it matters how that feedback is given.

Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians

The book of 1st Corinthians is essentially a performance review sent from the Apostle Paul and someone by the name of Sosthenes to the church in Corinth. Paul had planted the church in Corinth some years prior, and Sosthenes was most likely the former chief ruler of the synagogue in Corinth that we read about in Acts 18:12-17 who had been seized and beaten by the mob in the presence of the Roman governor, when he refused to proceed against Paul. Apparently Sosthenes is now a follower of Christ, since Paul refers to him as “our brother” (1 Cor. 1:1), and perhaps Sosthenes came to visit Paul and give him some news from the church in Corinth.

As we will see later on in our study of 1st Corinthians, the Corinthian church has some critical areas where they are in much need of improvement — which is why Paul is writing. The congregation seems to be divided, and some people seem to be placing pride in their own particular spiritual gifts, holding themselves up above others in the congregation, among other things, and Paul wants to give them guidance and correction.

Introduction

Paul, as a good supervisor or instructor, begins by stating the positive qualities of the Corinthian church, extolling their virtues and acknowledging the good things that they are doing, before moving on to the areas where they are in need of improvement.

In the first few verses, Paul refers to them as “sanctified” and as “saints” — rather high praise! Of course, the word “saints” is not quite what we imagine it to mean today. The words “sanctified” and “saints” here refer to people who have been set apart, chosen for a particular purpose — not necessarily people who are perfect or completely righteous, as we might think. Paul reminds that they are set apart, chosen, for a particular purpose. 

Paul also gently reminds them that they are part of the global body of Christ. They are “called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (1 Cor. 1:2). 

This is Paul’s way of saying, “you are special and unique, just like everyone else!” They are indeed chosen, set apart, unique, and special, but they are not better than everyone else, and in deed they are part of God’s church throughout the world, made up of people who are special and unique just like them.

Paul goes on to say, “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor. 1:4). Paul is really good at encouraging people without flattering them. He isn’t puffing them up, so much as reminding them that the source of their goodness is Christ. Their good qualities have been given to them by Jesus.

Speech and Knowledge

Paul then goes on to acknowledge their gifts of “speech and knowledge of every kind” (1 Cor. 1:5). Apparently the Corinthian church was full of expert speakers, and they found a lot of pride in their great speaking abilities. This was especially significant in their culture because the famous Isthmian Games were held only about 10 miles away from Corinth. These games had been held every two years starting back in the 6th century B.C. In addition to foot races, wrestling, boxing, and chariot racing, there were also contests for music, poetry, and rhetoric (public speaking). The Corinthians were knowledgeable on a variety of topics, a trait that was highly valued in their society. “Knowledge was associated with philosophical wisdom or the ability to speak extemporaneously [impromptu] on any topic.” 

Of course later on in this letter to the Corinthian church, Paul will remind them that wonderful speaking abilities and vast amounts of knowledge are worthless without love. He will tell them, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:1,2).

And so in these first few verses, Paul is laying out the positive traits of the Corinthian church. He is extolling their virtues, and building them up, but reminding them that their good gifts come from Christ, so that they will be more open to his gentle rebuke and correction later on. They are indeed wonderful speakers, and they do indeed have a lot of wonderful knowledge, and those gifts have been enriched in them through Christ. But their wonderful gifts and traits must be exercised in love for one another.

Not Lacking In Any Spiritual Gift

And then Paul goes on to speak words over the Corinthian church that are so beautiful and profound. Paul tells them “you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:7). 

“You are not lacking.” Imagine if you heard those words during your next performance review or meeting with your teacher! “You’re not lacking. You’re good to go!” “You have what it takes — you don’t need anything else!” That would be pretty amazing, wouldn’t it?

But of course the “you” here is plural. Paul is not saying that any individual person in the Corinthian church has all of the spiritual gifts, but rather that collectively, together as a community, they have been given everything that they need in order to function. Together as a community, they are not lacking anything.

We Are Not Lacking

Now, although these words were written about 2,000 years ago to a church community on the other side of the world, if Paul were writing a letter to us today here at Hampden United Methodist Church, I believe he would tell us the same thing. God has given us all of the spiritual gifts that we need right here in this room. None of us individually has all of the spiritual gifts — and that’s OK! We don’t need to all be great at everything. But we have everything we need right here, as long as we work together as a community. 

The truth is that it’s easy for us to focus on what we don’t have, or perhaps to pine for what we used to have. Perhaps you remember the days when our church was bursting at the seams, when it was difficult to find a place to sit in this sanctuary. Perhaps you remember the days when we were overflowing with volunteers, or when our church coffers were full. 

It’s easy for us to look around, and to focus on what we don’t have, on where we feel that we as a community are lacking. But I believe that God has called and equipped us to minister in this time and in this place. God has called us and given us what we need in order to minister, not in the world and neighborhood as it once was, but in the world as it is now. 

Our neighborhood and our city are changing. Hampden is not the same as it was 50 years ago, or even 10 years ago. And although a lot of people may have come and gone since then, I believe that God has given us exactly what we need to minister in this time and in this place, to the people who are out and about in our community right now. There are people right outside our doors who are in need of love. Encouragement. Hope. People who are longing to be set free, people who are longing to connect with God. 

We may not be able to solve every problem in our community, but we can point them to the One who can! God has given us exactly what we need in order to accomplish the mission that God has for us right now.

And so I’d like to read these verses to us again — this time from The Message paraphrase, since I think this is how Paul’s words would sound if they were written today. And I’d like us to hear these words spoken, not as words spoken to some distant community in ancient times, but as fresh words spoken over us today here at Hampden United Methodist Church:

Every time I think of you—and I think of you often!—I thank God for your lives of free and open access to God, given by Jesus. There’s no end to what has happened in you—it’s beyond speech, beyond knowledge. The evidence of Christ has been clearly verified in your lives. Just think—you don’t need a thing, you’ve got it all! All God’s gifts are right in front of you as you wait expectantly for our Master Jesus to arrive on the scene for the Finale. And not only that, but God himself is right alongside to keep you steady and on track until things are all wrapped up by Jesus. God, who got you started in this spiritual adventure, shares with us the life of his Son and our Master Jesus. He will never give up on you. Never forget that. 

— I Cor. 1:4-9 MSG

No Favorites

Sunday January 12th 2020

Pastor Galen Zook

Acts 10:34-38; Matthew 3:13-17

Favorite Child?

How many of you think that you were the favorite child in your family when you were growing up?

How many of you think that perhaps one of your siblings was the favorite child?

The reality is that probably none of us can know for sure if we were our parents’ or grandparents’ favorite child, unless you happened to be the only child! 🙂

When I was growing up, my parents tried very hard to show my older brother and me that we were equally loved and equally favored. They always made sure that we received the exact same number of Christmas presents every year, and they tried to spend an equal amount on both of us. When my brother turned 9 years he had a birthday party where he was allowed to invite all of his friends, so of course the only time I was allowed to have a birthday party when I was growing up was when I too turned 9 years old.

My parents were so consistent in their attempt to treat us completely equally that when we as a family shared a bag of candy M&M’s, my father would count out the exact number of pieces of candy in the bag and equally subdivide them between us! 

Now, all of this may have had something to do with the fact that my father spent his career as a Civil Rights Investigator for our state government, investigating instances of discrimination in housing, workplaces, and other institutions. He lived every day with the reality that people are not treated equally in our society, so perhaps his fixation with treating me and my brother with absolute equality was part of his attempt to ensure that there was equity and justice in at least one small corner of the world!

Peter Learns that God does not Play Favorites

In the book of Acts, which tells the story of the early church following the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Peter says, “‘I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right’” (Acts 10:34-35).

God does not show favoritism, but accepts people from every nation who fears him and does what is right.

For the Apostle Peter, this was a significant statement, because up until this point, Peter, as a Jewish male, would definitely have thought of himself and other Israelites as the “favorite child” of God. The Israelites, after all, were God’s chosen people, although they often forgot the reality that they had been chosen for a particular purpose, to be a blessing to all of the nations (Gen. 12:3) and to share the light of God’s love with the whole world (see Is. 42:6)! But it was so easy for Peter and others to forget this, so easy for them to think that they had a monopoly on God’s love and affection.

All of this changed for Peter in the story that we find in Acts chapter 10, however, which is why Peter says, “I now realize that God does not show favoritism.” 

In the beginning of Acts 10, Peter had a vision where he saw a blanket coming down out of the sky, containing a large number of animals that were not Kosher — animals that no religiously Jewish person would have ever eaten — animals that only Gentiles would have consumed. 

While Peter was wondering what this vision could possibly mean, he received an invitation to go to the house of a Gentile — a Roman centurion by the name of Cornelius. Cornelius was a worshiper of the one true God, and God had instructed him to call for Peter so that Peter could tell him the Good News about Jesus. It was when Peter saw Cornelius’ openness and desire to hear about Jesus that he realized that God does not show favoritism, but “accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”

Soon after that, Cornelius and his whole household received the Holy Spirit, and immediately after that they were baptized with water as a symbol of God’s love and acceptance of them, despite the fact that they were Gentiles and not Jewish.

This was a pivotal moment in Peter’s life, in which his whole worldview was rearranged. He realized that, yes, he and his fellow Jews were special and uniquely loved by God, but that God also loved the Gentiles! He learned that God loves each and every person, from every nation under the sun. God’s acceptance of the Gentiles did not mean that God’s love for Peter and his fellow Jews was any less special or unique. God’s love is so large and all-encompassing that each and every one of us is a favorite child of God!

Equally loved, Equally in need of God’s forgiveness

The truth that we are all equally loved by God is also paired with the reality that we are all equally in need of God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness. This is a truth that Peter would have learned and seen displayed in the ministry of John the Baptist, who baptized people in the Jordan River, preparing the way for the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ.

Prior to this time, water baptism was a rite of purification that was typically reserved for certain groups of people at certain times. Gentiles who wanted to convert to Judaism would have undergone a ritual cleansing ceremony that involved water, as would priests who were preparing to enter into the temple, and those who had been considered ritually unclean for various reasons such as leprosy.

But John the Baptist issued an invitation for anyone and everyone to be baptized — no matter their station in life, no matter their circumstances, no matter how many good deeds they had done, or no matter how far away from God they have strayed. 

The Baptism of the Lord

And although John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, even Jesus himself joined in – even though he was perfect and without sin — as a way of showing solidarity with us as humans. Jesus – the Messiah, the Savior of the world, humbled himself and went down into the water and was baptized just like us, as our Gospel Lesson in Matthew says, so that all righteousness might be fulfilled (Matt. 3:15). 

When Jesus went down into the water and was baptized, the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove, and a voice came out of heaven, saying “‘This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’” (Matt. 3:17).

But the Holy Spirit is not just a gift given to God’s one and only begotten son! The gift of the Holy Spirit is available to anyone and everyone who repents and turns to Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins. Truly God does not show favoritism! 

God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness are available to anyone and everyone, irrespective of our cultural background, irrespective of how wealthy or poor we are, irrespective of our academic or scholastic achievements, or what we’ve done or haven’t done. God’s grace is freely available to all who will receive.

The baptism of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ shows us that Jesus was willing to become one with us, so that we can become one with him. And just as in Christ’s baptism God the Father spoke words of affirmation over Jesus the Beloved Son, so too our baptisms are a reminder of God’s love for each and every one of us.

Conclusion

I don’t know about you, but this morning I’m so glad to know that God does not play favorites. I’m glad to know that we don’t have to wonder whether we’ve done enough good things to get onto God’s good side. I’m glad that we don’t have to wonder if God loves us more or less than our brothers and sisters in Christ. God loves us individually and specifically, and as it has often been said, even if you or I were the only person on Earth, Jesus would still would have come down to this earth and died on the cross to save us from our sins. What an amazing thought! What an amazing picture of God’s unconditional and never-ending love for us.

But as Peter learned, the special and unique love that God has for us individually does not give us a license to look down on or think that we are better than our brothers and sisters. If “God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (Acts 10:34b-35), then so should we! If we have been cleansed and transformed by the waters of baptism, if we have the Holy Spirit living inside of us, then who are we to look down a fellow believer who might believe something a little different than us, or who might have a different ethnic or cultural background than us, or sexual orientation or political view or perspective than us. 

God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness is available to each and every one of us. All of us are equally loved by God, and God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness is available to all. So let us share God’s love with others! Let’s not play favorites, let’s not discriminate or differentiate in sharing God’s love with those around us. Let’s ask for more of God’s Holy Spirit to refresh and renew and restore us, and let’s freely share God’s love with anyone and everyone!

 

So Now What?

Sunday December 29th  2019

Pastor Galen Zook

Isaiah 63:7-9; Matthew 2:13-23

First Sunday After Christmas

The “Magic” wears off quickly

Christmas is a wonderful time of the year. The lights, the candles, the music, the trees and decorations and gifts. Time together with family. These are truly sacred moments.

But the magic of Christmas wears off rather quickly doesn’t it? For you, maybe it was when you had to wake up to go to work the next day, or when you were left to do the clean up all by yourself after all of your family members were gone, or when everyone else had gone to bed.

Perhaps the magic wore off even on Christmas day when the kids started fighting (or your relatives of other ages started fighting!), or when the kids said they were bored, and you realized there was a whole week left before they had to go back to school!

Some of us are happy to move on from Christmas. We’re tired of seeing Christmas decorations, tired of hearing Christmas songs. The stores started decorating for Christmas before Halloween, and now that all the Christmas gifts have been unwrapped and the holiday meals are finished, maybe you just want it to all be over. 

Historically Christmas was a twelve-day celebration, beginning on December 25th. The period leading up to Christmas is called Advent, where we’re awaiting the celebration of Christmas, and then the period between December 25th and January 6th is Christmas itself, but our society gets it all mixed up. We start celebrating Christmas way too early, skip over advent, and then by the time December 25th is here, we are ready to start packing everything up!

So Now What?

But whether you’re celebrating all twelve days of Christmas, or whether you’ve already put your Christmas decorations away, I’d like to invite us to dwell in the meaning of Christmas for just a little bit longer, and to ask ourselves the question, “So What Now?” 

I don’t just mean, “what do we do with our children for the next 4 days until they go back to school?” I mean, how should we live now that Christ has been born? And how do we live out the promises of Christmas in a world where all is not right, where all is not wonderful and magical?

For Mary and Joseph, the magic and wonder of that first Christmas was met soon afterwards by the harsh reality of life, when an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him that King Herod was out to kill baby Jesus, and that they needed to flee for their lives all the way to the land of Egypt. Talk about the reality of life hitting you hard!

All of the prophecies leading up to the birth of Christ seemed to indicate that the world would be completely different once the Messiah was born. We read many of these prophecies during the Advent — prophecies of the wolf and lamb living together in harmony (Is. 11:6), prophecies of people beating their swords into plowshares and studying war no more (Is. 2:4. Prophecies about how God would be a shepherd to the people and care for them (Micah 5:4).

But Jesus was born, and tyrannical governors like Herod still ruled in this world. Jesus was born, and yet Mary and Joseph were forced to flee for their lives. Jesus has been born, and yet poverty, and homelessness, and addiction, and domestic violence, and wars still take place. Jesus has been born, and yet there is still sickness, and death and disease.

How do we live in a world in which these things occur? How do we live in a world in which all is not the way it should be, even as we wait and long for the day when Christ returns to make everything right?

The Example of Mary and Joseph

I’m struck by the fact that Mary and Joseph followed the directions given by the angel. They fled to Egypt. A 430-mile journey, with an infant or toddler does not sound like fun for anyone, let alone in a time when there were no cars, planes, trains, or buses!

But they followed the directions of the angel, and they fled. They didn’t argue or negotiate, they didn’t live in blind optimism that everything would turn out OK if they stayed. They listened to the Lord, and they took the necessary steps to ensure the safety of their family. 

We have no idea what life was like for Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in Egypt, or even how long they needed to stay there. In the book of Jeremiah, we see that a remnant of Jewish people had fled to Egypt (600 years before the birth of Christ) and had even taken the prophet Jeremiah along with them against his will (Jer. 43:6-7). By the time of Jesus’s birth, there was a large number of Jewish people living in Egypt — some estimate that over 300,000 Jews lived in the city of Alexandria alone! (⅓ of the total population of the city of 1 million people).

And so Mary and Joseph followed the directions given by the messenger of the Lord, traveled hundreds of miles, crossed international borders, and lived in Egypt until they received word that it was safe to return home. Even when they returned home, they decided to settle in Galilee, in the northern part of Palestine, since King Herod’s relative was on the throne in Judea.

Joseph and Mary didn’t give up on the promises of God. They continued to trust and believe that their son would be the Savior of the world, as the angel had promised (Matt. 1:21). But they were also attentive to the things going on around them, and they took appropriate precautions. They balanced realism and optimism, hope and rational thinking. They lived faith-filled lives, and faithfully carried out the task that God had given them to do, and in so doing they played an active role in God’s redemption plan for the world! 

Displaced People

As I’ve been reflecting on the story of Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt, I’ve been thinking about how many people in our world today are currently displaced, how many people are currently in a situation where they have been forced to flee for their lives.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency

  • We are now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record.
  • An unprecedented 70.8 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 25.9 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.
  • There are also millions of stateless people who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement.
  • 1 person is forcibly displaced every two seconds as a result of conflict or persecution.

This of course is not just a recent phenomenon. My own ancestors fled to the U.S. to escape religious persecution in Europe in the 1700’s, and many of you probably have ancestors who came to the U.S. fleeing the threat of violence back home, or perhaps simply seeking a better life for their children and grandchildren.

Here in our own city, it is estimated that there are 2,500 men, women, and children who are homeless on any given night. 

Not all of them are homeless because they were fleeing dangerous situations, but undoubtedly some are. This past Monday, I received a call here on the church phone from a woman who had been in Baltimore for only two days. She admitted to me that she is a recovering addict, but she said that she had left her home in Pennsylvania because she had been living in an unsafe situation. Someone had promised her a place to stay here in Baltimore, but when she arrived there was absolutely no food in the house. There were numerous people living in the house, including children, but no food to be found. It being a few days before Christmas, most of the places she had called were closed, and some of the phone numbers she tried calling were no longer in service. She said we were the only place who returned her call. We were able to give her and her boyfriend two bags of groceries and several loaves of bread, for which she was immensely grateful. 

All of this is a stark reminder to me that we live in a world where not all is not right in the world. Not all of God’s promises have yet been fulfilled. There is still violence and conflict, and as long as there is conflict and violence in our world, there will be people who, like Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus, are forced to flee for their lives.

Peace, Hope, Joy and Love

And so how do we live in a world where all is not right, where so many people are forcibly displaced from their homes, where so many children go to bed hungry every night, and where so many people live in constant fear for their lives?

Like Mary and Joseph, we cling to and proclaim the promise that in Christ God is with us, that in Christ God’s mercy, and grace, and salvation are free and available to all. And we look forward to the day when Christ will return to make everything right. 

We look to the future with hope, but we also seek to faithfully carry out the tasks that God has given to us in the present. We welcome the strangers, we feed those who are hungry. If Jesus and his family were refugees in Egypt, then surely we can work to provide safety and security to those around us who are vulnerable and dislocated from their homes. We work for the good of our community, and we seek to bring about peace, recognizing that God still uses faithful, faith-filled people, to help carry out God’s plan of redemption in the world. 

And ultimately, we point people to the one who loves us and who gave his life for us. We point them to Jesus — Emmanuel — God with us. The one who came to save us from our sins, the only one who can bring lasting peace, hope, joy, and love.

And so this morning, let us open our hearts toward all who are displaced, all those who come to us in need, all those who are discouraged, or depressed, or downtrodden. Let us ask God to help us see the face of Christ in all who are oppressed, in all who are in need of God’s love, mercy, and grace. Let us proclaim the promises of Christmas, and let us with our words and deeds point people to the One who loves them and give his life for them.

As people who have received God’s peace, hope, joy, and love, let’s extend God’s love, grace, and compassion to a world that is still longing to be set free!

Silent Night, Holy Night

Tuesday December 24th, 2019

Christmas Eve

Pastor Galen Zook

A Night Like Any Other Night

For most of the residents of the sleepy little town of Bethlehem, it was a night not much different from any other night.

True, many of them had out-of-town guests staying with them, so their already cramped and tiny houses were even more crowded than normal. Although it must have been fun to see friends and family that they had not seen in such a long time, the reality is that they were not gathered together for a holiday celebration, but rather because the Emperor had demanded that everyone return to their hometown so that a census could be taken. In other words, they were being taxed. Not exactly a cause for celebration!

And so as they went to bed that night, many sleeping crowded next to each other on the floor on that dark and silent night, their overcrowded homes were a stark reminder that they were not free people. They were a people who lived under the constant threat of violence, constantly under the yoke of oppression. They were a people constantly longing to be set free. 

And the worst part about it was their knowledge that it was because of their own sin and guilt that they were in the shape they were in! Their own prophets had predicted that if they turned away from God they would be overtaken by a foreign government, and that was indeed what happened. But after century after century of one oppressive ruler after another, they longed for God to forgive, and to come and make everything right again. They longed for God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness so they could finally be free, and so they could finally live in peace. 

The prophets had predicted that one would come who would set them free, one who would be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. One who would be a shepherd to his people, and rule over them in peace. But when would he come, or would he ever come?

And so the residents of Bethlehem and their out-of-town guests went to sleep that night, longing, hoping, and waiting, just as they did every other night.

A Holy Night 

But for Mary and Joseph, it was not a night like any other. For them it was indeed a holy — a sacred — night.

They too had been forced to travel for over a week from their hometown of Nazareth to Bethlehem because of the census, and the timing could not have been worse. Mary was about to give birth to their first child, and when they arrived in Bethlehem there wasn’t even room for them to stay in an inn or guest room. And so they gave birth to their firstborn child in a stable, and laid their baby on a bed of fresh hay in a manger — a fancy word for a feeding trough.

But for Mary and Joseph, they knew this was a sacred night. And not just because they had just given birth to their firstborn child — a cause for celebration indeed! But also because an angel had visited Mary and told her that her child was the one the people had been waiting for — the one whom the prophets had predicted would come. The one who would free the people — and not just their people, but All people — from the yoke of tyranny and oppression.

And so on that first Christmas night, as Mary and Joseph looked down at the child in their arms, surrounded by animals, and visited by the unlikeliest of guests — the shepherds from the hillsides of Bethlehem — they wondered at the miracle that had taken place inside Mary’s womb. And as they stared down at the face of their little child, they looked at him with love, joy, peace, hope — and amazement.

The Light of Christ

In truth, this was not the way anyone expected it would take place. Most people expected a conquering military hero who would swoop in and overthrow the Roman Empire and establish himself as king — not a baby born in a stable. They expected a conquering king who would smite their enemies — not a baby laid in a manger.

And yet, the little baby born that night was like a single candle being lit.

When even a candle is lit in a room, that room is no longer completely dark. In fact, it’s been said that on a completely dark and still night, if there were no obstructions in the way, the flame from a single solitary candle could be seen for almost 2 miles in every direction!

And so, that Silent and Holy night, as the Christ child was born, it was as though a single candle had been lit in the darkness. And as Jesus grew older and walked this earth, he spread his message of peace, love, forgiveness and grace, and others began to follow him in that way. Their candles too began to burn bright, and they carried the message of hope, love, peace, and joy with them wherever they went. And that light has been spread on down through the ages, until it has reached even here to us today.

And so this evening we are too are invited to carry forth that light — to spread Christ’s message of peace, hope, and joy to all those in our own world who are longing to be set free. We are invited to be the light of Christ to those who are burdened down by guilt or shame, those who are lonely, marginalized, those who are hungry, poor, homeless, those who are suffering from disease, and all those who are oppressed. But before we can be a light to others, we need to accept the light of Christ in our own lives. We need to allow Christ to be born in us.

Let us invite the light of Christ into our lives, and let us go forth to bear Christ’s light in the world!